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Vermont’s First Woman Gov. Madeleine Kunin on Protesting Trump, Helping Women Run for Office & More

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As Donald Trump approaches his 100th day as president on Saturday, his approval ratings are the lowest any president has had at this stage in generations. A recent poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found just 40 percent of Americans currently approve of his job performance. Trump took to Twitter to call the poll “totally wrong.” We speak to the pioneering Vermont politician, former Vermont Governor Madeleine May Kunin. In 1997, she became just the fourth woman in U.S. history to be elected governor whose husband had not previously served. Kunin was born in Switzerland in 1933 and came to the United States as a child. She later served as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland. In recent months, she has been a vocal critic of President Trump. She recently participated in the Tax Day march in Burlington, Vermont, and also wrote a piece thanking Trump for “waking us from our slumber.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Vermont PBS. This is Democracy Now!

As Donald Trump approaches his hundredth day as president Saturday, his approval ratings are the lowest any president has had at this stage in generations. A recent poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found just 40 percent of Americans currently approve of his job performance. Trump took to Twitter to call the poll “totally wrong.”

Well, we’re joined now by a pioneering Vermont politician: former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin. In 1997, she became just the fourth woman in U.S. history to be elected governor whose husband had not previously served. Kunin was born in Switzerland in 1933, came to the U.S. as a child. She later served as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland. In recent months, she’s been a vocal critic of President Trump. She recently participated in the Tax Day march in Burlington, Vermont, and also wrote a piece thanking Trump for, quote, “waking us from our slumber.” In the article, Kunin writes, quote, “We’re becoming a nation of activists. … [T]he election of Donald Trump has inspired us to get off the couch and 'do something.' This is a vibrant, sometimes angry, but fundamentally healthy exercise. Activism is the life blood of democracy. This is a vibrant, sometimes angry, but fundamentally healthy exercise—it is the life blood of democracy.”

Governor Kunin, it’s great to have you back on Democracy Now!

MADELEINE KUNIN: Thank you, Amy. I’m delighted to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it’s just about 100 days of the Donald Trump presidency. Your assessment?

MADELEINE KUNIN: Well, some of what he’s been doing was expected, because we got a lot of clues during the campaign. But it turns out to be worse than we anticipated, because he’s going full speed ahead—I mean, everything from yesterday’s announcement that he will review 40 monuments, which is national land, public land, to this latest tax proposal, to his stand on immigration, to just gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. So you don’t know what to get angry about first, because you’re being bombarded right and left by things that many Americans vehemently disagree with.

AMY GOODMAN: So you wrote an open commentary thanking Donald Trump for “waking us from our slumber,” particularly referring to women. What do you mean?

MADELEINE KUNIN: I mean things that are really happening all over the country. And here in Vermont, for example, we had a huge Women’s March in Montpelier. But from my personal experience, I spoke to a class the other day at the University of Vermont, and I asked, “How many of you consider yourself feminists?” And almost every hand went up. And previously, before Trump’s inauguration, when I would ask that question, you know, one or two would tentatively raise their hands, and there was a big discussion about why we’re not feminists. So, whether you’re a feminist or not, people are marching who never marched before. People are following the news closely. You can’t have a conversation without Trump invading it at some point. It’s like—he’s like an endangered—like a occupying army almost, that he’s just on everybody’s mind. We can’t help it. Even if we’d like to get away, we can’t.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about women’s representation around the country, in legislatures, in top elected offices. The New York Times had a piece recently, “What Happens When Women Legislate.” And it’s talking about the group Emerge. You started Emerge Vermont. It says, “At 39.7 percent, Nevada now ranks near the top for women’s representation in state politics, second only to Vermont.”

MADELEINE KUNIN: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: So how has it happened here? And where do you see the glass ceiling is?

MADELEINE KUNIN: Well, not only are we second in the nation in the percentage of women in our Legislature—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, this says top. This says Nevada is second.

MADELEINE KUNIN: Well, it’s a question of decimal points. And once we can forget about the decimal points, we won’t argue who’s first or second or third. But I thought Colorado was first, but it may have changed in the meantime. But the women are chairs of key committees. Both appropriations committees are chaired by women. Our speaker is a woman. And it has an impact, because different issues come up, as that article said. We’re debating a law that would protect pregnant women from arduous tasks in the workplace; paid family leave. So, these issues come up. But also, I think women sometimes have a different way of negotiating. There’s not as much macho “I win, you lose.” It’s—we sit down together.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about progressive politicians and Republican politicians as women in the United States?

MADELEINE KUNIN: Well, the Republican women have a big hurdle to get over, because they won’t be accepted by the party if they are pro-choice, if they believe in legal and safe abortion. So that cuts out a lot of people. But progressive women certainly should be on board. I mean, what we’re seeing is that we don’t want to be observers of the process anymore. We want to sit at the table where the decisions are made. And it’s so important for women to be there and for women who don’t want to run for office to support these women in every way, from financial contributions to bringing a casserole for dinner when a woman is running for office, because she can’t get home in time to cook.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about perhaps the most prominent woman in the Trump administration: his daughter, Ivanka. Well, just in the last week, in Berlin, Germany, President Trump’s daughter, White House adviser, Ivanka Trump, was booed during a panel discussion at a meeting of women business leaders, when she claimed that her father, Donald Trump, is a champion of families.

IVANKA TRUMP: I’m very, very proud of my father’s advocacy. Long before he came to the presidency, but during the campaign, including in the primaries, he’s been a tremendous champion of supporting families and enabling them to thrive. In the new reality of—

AUDIENCE: Boooo!

MIRIAM MECKEL: You hear the reaction from the audience.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was the panel moderator, the panel moderator of this event in Berlin, Germany. And that was Ivanka Trump herself, talking about her father as the champion of women in the workplace.

MADELEINE KUNIN: Well, there’s scant evidence of that, from everything we’ve seen. I mean, he has the fewest number of women in his Cabinet. I don’t know the exact percentage. But the photo op you usually see is a group of men sitting at the table—a famous photo of the tea party meeting when there wasn’t a woman in sight. His attitude on abortion is taking away the rights of women to make their own healthcare decisions. That’s crucial. And we’ll see if the child care—her one—her one starring moment was when she spoke up for child care and for paid maternity leave. But we’ll see if that happens and how hard she pushes. But also, all her conflicts of interest with her own business dealings. So, she’s in a very suspect position as far as ethics goes and conflicts of interest.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re one of only 38 women in U.S. history to have served as governor. You’re the—among the first women to be elected in her own right, and you remain the only female governor Vermont has ever elected. Can you tell us a little about your own story, how you came to run for governor, where you came from?

MADELEINE KUNIN: Well, I was born in Zürich, Switzerland. And I came to this country at the outbreak of World War II with my mother and brother. But what my mother instilled in us is still the story of the American dream. And I think that gave me a more optimistic view of politics. But I didn’t really get interested in running for anything until the women’s movement. And I started out in the Legislature and lieutenant governor. So I worked my way up the ladder. And I guess I felt that I could make a difference. And I got my education as chair of the House Appropriations Committee. And if you know where the money is, then you can really have an impact. And I feel very privileged that—

AMY GOODMAN: Now, when you say House Appropriations Committee, you mean in the state House, right?

MADELEINE KUNIN: Yes, sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Because Vermont has never sent a woman to Washington.

MADELEINE KUNIN: Yes, I should clarify that, which is one—our only black mark. But we have one lone congressman, as you know. But still, that’s not a good enough excuse. But part of what Emerge is aiming at is to elect more women. And eventually, we hope soon we’ll send a woman to Congress and lose that unpleasant distinction.

AMY GOODMAN: You were—you were born in Switzerland. You were the first Jewish woman governor in any state in the United States to be elected. And you also became the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland. And this was at a controversial time—

MADELEINE KUNIN: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —when—right?—Switzerland’s complicity in its banking system with the Nazis was being exposed. I wanted first to get your reaction to the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, sparking outrage after comparing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Hitler and falsely claiming Hitler never used chemical weapons. This is Spicer speaking on the first day of the Jewish holiday Passover two weeks ago.

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: You look, we didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had a—you know, someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to the—to using chemical weapons. So you have to, if you’re Russia, ask yourself: Is this a country that you, and a regime, that you want to align yourself with?

AMY GOODMAN: So, in fact, the Nazis systematically used poison gas as part of its genocide of 6 million Jews and others. The Nazis began experimenting with gas with the specific purpose of carrying out mass murder in the late ’30s, after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. They deployed gas vans to kill hundreds of thousands of people. By ’42, the Nazis had set up a series of concentration camps where gas chambers were the main method of killing people. At its peak, as many as 6,000 people, mostly Jews, were gassed to death every day at the Auschwitz concentration camp alone. During his comments, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer also [referred] to Nazi concentration camps as “holocaust centers.” So, governor Kunin, your thoughts?

MADELEINE KUNIN: Yeah, I think he must have flunked history, because he’s so totally naïve and unaware of what actually happened. And I think some of that is typical of the Trump administration. People don’t believe in research. They don’t believe in expertise. And they go by the seat of their pants on a lot of issues which require expertise. You know, we’re sort of in a huge anti-elite universe. In the State Department, for example, there are no people who have a sense of history and a sense of diplomacy and the skill that is needed to be an effective diplomat and serve our country. So, I think it was a very important misstatement. You can’t call it a lie, because he thought he was—he thought he was speaking the truth, when we all know that was fiction.

AMY GOODMAN: You also served as deputy secretary of education under President Clinton. Education is very important to you. I’m wondering your thoughts on the current education secretary, Betsy DeVos?

MADELEINE KUNIN: Well, her orientation is entirely different from the mission of the Department of Education, which is to support the public school system. And her interest in private education and religious schools is very disturbing, because public education is always starved for funding and student financial aid. I was very much involved with that when I was deputy secretary. And we have to find the right way to reduce the huge debt that so many students are left with. And, again, she’s moving in the opposite direction, by going to private lenders instead of the public, with something called direct lending. So, I’m concerned. And, you know, her ignorance about the children with disabilities—again, we have to invest in the right places. And they even talk about, which is not a new story, eliminating the Department of Education. She hasn’t said that, but the Trump people have referred to that.

AMY GOODMAN: Does Vermont have any charter schools?

MADELEINE KUNIN: We don’t have—we have sort of semi-charter schools, but not officially as charter schools. Like in Burlington, there’s schools that emphasize the arts and that specialize and draw children into those schools. But I don’t think we have officially a charter school.

AMY GOODMAN: You have called for 16-year-olds to be able to vote. Explain.

MADELEINE KUNIN: Well, I think it would—it would galvanize this group and maybe make education, while they’re in high school—what we really have to get back to is the old-fashioned term “civics,” where you learned how the government worked. And now we can teach it in a much more exciting way. But young people, as you know, are the least likely to vote. And people my age are the most likely to vote. And I think, again, the Trump administration is igniting hope again for young people, and fear. So, kind of hope and fear may make them want to vote and be good citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about what’s happened at Fox. Another Fox News anchor, Sean Hannity, is facing accusations of unwanted sexual advances. Former Fox News guest Debbie Schlussel has accused Hannity of inviting her back to his hotel room, and that, after she rejected his advances, “he called me and yelled at me. … And I kind of knew I wouldn’t be back on his show,” unquote. While Schlussel says she doesn’t think the incident qualifies as sexual harassment, she says that she thought Hannity was “weird and creepy.” The accusations come after Fox’s top anchor, Bill O’Reilly, was ousted amidst revelations he and Fox paid more than $13 million to settle five sexual harassment claims. O’Reilly will reportedly receive a payout of about $25 million, equivalent to one year’s salary, after he was fired. O’Reilly’s payout follows a $40 million severance package paid to former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes last year, after he was accused of sexual harassment by more than 20 women. Governor Kunin, you recently did a commentary for VPR, Vermont Public Radio, on O’Reilly.

MADELEINE KUNIN: Well, the good news is that women are speaking out. Women are no longer staying silent as we were told to do. You know, “If you want to get ahead, don’t say anything. Just—just keep your mouth shut.” And these brave women at Fox News took the risk—and it still is risky—to speak out and file their suits and be recognized. And the good news is, they had a huge impact, that, you know, the biggest man in news, the iconic Bill O’Reilly, was toppled from his pedestal. And that sent shock waves, but it also sent a huge message, that we’re not going to tolerate this anymore. If you—if you misbehave in a sexual way and make women uncomfortable or humiliate them, you’re out. And I think that gives other women around the country a huge sense of power. And in a way, it comes down to money, because the advertisers, 50 advertisers, withdrew. And that’s where the action is. And suddenly, you know, the lights went on at Fox News, and Rupert Murdoch had to say, “Hey, we’ve got to get rid of this guy.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you about your own history. You were the first governor in the country to march in a gay pride march. Your daughter came out to you decades ago. Can you describe that experience and how people responded to you? You marched in Burlington.

MADELEINE KUNIN: Well, it was early in the gay rights movement. And it was when these parades were very lively and sort of weird and sort of funny. And I gave a talk at the beginning of the parade. But later, I wondered—and after that gay rights parade, I went to a military ceremony in the next town, and I thought, “What a contrast!” You know? Of course, then it was a more dramatic contrast than it would be now. But I found out later that at a cash register in a small town in Vermont, they had my picture from the paper, and they had a circle with a slash through it. So, the feeling was much more conflicted 30 years ago. I hate to count it up, but I think that’s how long ago it was.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, in your years as governor—and now, you’re an extremely active post-governor, more so than most anyone in the country, in stating your views, being out there. You started Emerge Vermont. It’s part of a national organization. Talk about what you feel women need to do to get elected, at every level of government, and what’s holding women back. The numbers are so low in the United States.

MADELEINE KUNIN: Well, when women run, they have an equal chance of winning as a man, except when it comes to the presidency—we won’t go into that now, but there’s still a huge barrier at that level—but for legislative seats. It’s a little harder for governor, but not impossible.

I think what they need to do is really stand firm in their beliefs. I mean, you have to have the inner passion. You have to have the motivation. And then you can follow the rules of what it takes to be elected. And I think the biggest thing that women lack is confidence. You know, there’s no degree in running for office. And I think we’re so used to being certified for this, that or the other thing, or getting an A in a course, and then we feel good. But there is simply a process that can be managed. And I think women are deterred by money, by the funding, by the negativity of politics. It was better in my day, no doubt.

But women have to be at the table to make the decisions or be part of the decisions that affect their lives and their families’ lives. So, it’s—they also have to realize it’s exciting. And when I say it’s exciting, it’s also fun, which we don’t talk about much. But it’s very rewarding. If you live your life making a difference in the world for others, you really live a good life.

AMY GOODMAN: Governor Kunin, I want to thank you very much for joining us. Madeleine May Kunin served as governor of Vermont for three terms, from 1985 to 1991. She’s Marsh professor of—at the University of Vermont and the author of The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family. She is also the founder of Emerge Vermont.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to Denver, Colorado, where a Mexican immigrant has just been taken by ICE agents off the streets, where he was working, and readied for deportation. But people are coming out and speaking out. Stay with us.

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